Many college institutions and universities offer the opportunity for students to study a semester abroad in a foreign country. This is an invaluable experience for a young person to learn and grow both academically and personally. This topic of discussion has come up in my sessions working alongside college-aged students in eating disorder recovery. The decision to study abroad is a commitment that requires an extended amount of time away from family, friends, and other sources of support. I utilize these evaluative questions to explore with my client their readiness to travel abroad in recovery:
• Are my symptoms managed well? Am I able to regulate using healthy coping skills? Do I have a relapse-prevention plan in place?
• Is my physical and mental health stabilized?
• Have I been making progress in recovery for a continual amount of time?
• Do I feel properly supported?
• Does the thought of travel bring joy and excitement (not fear or anxiety)?
How Do I Know I Am Ready to Study Abroad?
From traveling long hours on a plane, exposure to different foods, adjustments to time zones, experiencing a new culture and way of daily living – the choice to study abroad would be carefully considered and discussed with a treatment team (primary therapist, registered dietician, medical provider, etc). Considering the costs and benefits of the timing of the trip abroad is also important – a person should ideally be at an outpatient level of care, medically and psychologically stable and solidly in recovery. With guidance from a treatment team, realistic expectations and goals can be met if planned out accordingly.
Maintaining Mental and Physical Health Abroad:
Choose with recovery in mind. Traveling abroad for the first time in recovery is not the time to push or challenge too much. I encourage clients to be mindful in choosing a location and/or program type that will be aligned with maintaining recovery (i.e. access to appropriate dietary needs, ability to maintain contact with support network) – reminding them that there will be other opportunities to explore different destinations in trips to come.
Engage in self-care. Ah, the infamous s-word. Taking care of basic health needs is a fundamental way to preserve any type of recovery. Upholding a regular sleep schedule, proper nutrition, limiting alcohol, taking daily medications, journaling before bed or beginning the day with a meditation; whatever works in day-to-day life in America should be translated abroad to incorporate stability into the new and potentially changing environment.
Stay connected. Traveling or studying abroad can feel isolating at times, especially when navigating a different culture. Staying connected to various sources of support is important. This can be met through an online eating disorder support group, emails from a treatment team member or regular scheduled FaceTime or phone calls with a loved one.
Cassy Taverna, MSW, LCSW-A currently sees individual clients and facilitates S.O.A.R (Staying Open about Recovery), a support group for college-aged women who are making strides to positively stay on track with eating disorder recovery. Her clinical interests include the treatment of eating disorders, trauma, anxiety/mood disorders and LGBTQIA issues. Cassy loves to travel as she presented her research on Disordered Eating Among Newly Bereaved Spouses at the International Conference on Community Mental Health in Bangalore, India during her graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.